Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sermon for Proper 27

St Christopher's, Rantoul--Matthew 25:1-13, Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18

Since the middle of this past summer, we’ve had a series of our Lord’s parables, as recorded in St Matthew’s gospel, for us to consider at each Sunday liturgy. As I look back on these Sunday gospels, what a spiritual feast they are! There is so much there to challenge us, and comfort us, and guide us, and enlarge us. Some of the parables are more immediately accessible than others. They relate to human experiences that are fairly universal across various times and cultures. Others require more “translation” for us to be able to understand them.

Today’s parable, the parable of the “Wise and Foolish Virgins,” is one of the latter. So, before we can apply this parable to our own lives, we need to understand what the story means in its own right, and what it meant in the culture of those who first heard it. Obviously, there’s a wedding involved, and these young ladies were what we might call bridesmaids. Their job is to wait with the bride at her home while her parents are away negotiating with the groom over the amount of her dowry. No one knows quite how long this will take—in fact, the longer it takes, the more flattering this is to the bride, so if the groom knows what’s good for him, he’s going to be gone awhile! When the grooms arrives—probably at a fairly late hour—the job of the bridesmaids is to go out and meet him with their torches burning, and then form a procession with the bride and the groom to the groom’s house, where the wedding ceremony will take place, followed by eating and drinking and dancing.

Well, in our parable, five of the ten bridesmaids brought extra oil for the torches, just in case the dowry negotiations went on longer than expected. Apparently, this is exactly what happened, because when the word came, “The groom is on his way!” the “foolish five” asked to borrow oil from the “wise five,” but their request was denied, so they went out to see what they could scrounge, missed the torchlight parade, and when they got to where the party was, nobody would let them in. They had been unprepared, and now they were suffering the consequences of their folly. It’s kind of a sad story, actually. Who wants to miss an important party?

So, to make the spiritual application of the parable now: Just as the bridesmaids awaited the arrival of the groom, but didn’t know precisely when he would get there, you and I await the arrival of Jesus on the Last Day, the Day of Judgment. One of the responsibilities of the bridesmaids was to be prepared for the coming of the groom by making sure they had enough oil for their torches. Obviously, then, one of our responsibilities—indeed, ultimately, our only responsibility—is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. But what does such preparedness look like? What, precisely, is the “oil” that we require to keep our “lamps burning?”

To answer this question, we need to look at the entirety of St Matthew’s gospel. In particular, we need to pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, which occurs early in Jesus’ ministry, and therefore sets the tone and provides the context for interpreting other things he says. The Sermon on the Mount is very concrete. It deals with the way human beings behave in real relationships. It talks about hungering and thirsting and mourning and rejoicing. It talks about being picked on and being persecuted and being offended, and suggests that the proper response to those experiences includes patience, forgiveness, faithfulness, and reconciliation. The Sermon on the Mount talks about love and marriage and community; it commends values such as truthfulness and integrity and stewardship and faith. In short, the Sermon on the Mount is about the habits we form, not in extraordinary circumstances, not under exceptionally challenging conditions, but in ordinary day-to-day living. For each of us, being ready to meet Jesus on the Day of Judgment means becoming the kind of person that is described in the Sermon on the Mount. And while we’re on the subject, we may as well take a quick look at the Old Testament prophet Amos, who advises us that the way to be prepared for the presence of God is to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

So…how’s your oil supply? If you’re like me, you’re not quite sure. Speaking personally, I’m probably not as prepared as I would like to be to greet the arrival of the Bridegroom. But I hope I don’t give in to the temptation to minimize the importance of such preparation. Through a combination of fuzzy thinking and moral laziness, it’s all too easy to form misleading attitudes toward the coming of Christ.

One of these misleading attitudes is that preparation for the “coming of Christ” is a matter of a one-time decision, sort of like registering to vote. “My name’s on the rolls of the Book of Life—on June 4, 1982, or whenever, I invited Jesus into my heart, and that’s over and done with. I’m ready, Jesus; come and get me! Sure, I’ll be glad to be a bridesmaid. Where can I buy some oil?” Only, as we saw in the parable, five of the ten bridesmaids had said the same thing. Their names were on the wedding program, and everybody was expecting them. But when the crunch came, they weren’t ready, and they were excluded from the party. No, being prepared to greet the coming of Christ has to be more than a one-time decision, after which we can relax. To borrow a phrase from pastor and author Eugene Peterson, it’s a “long obedience in the same direction.”

Another misleading attitude is that preparation for the coming of Christ isn’t really all that crucial a matter, so it can be a tentative or half-hearted decision, not something you need to put your soul into—sort of like…well…telling someone who approaches you about serving on the Vestry or Bishop’s Committee, “Sure, you can put my name it,” but not taking your decision terribly seriously. “I’m not doing anything else that day, so…sure, I’ll be a bridesmaid. By the way, do I have to supply my own oil, or is it provided?” Well, even running for Vestry shouldn’t be a casual decision, but even less so should be our decision to follow Christ and to prepare ourselves for his coming. The fact is, this is the only decision. All others pale in significance next to whether we will be ready to greet the coming of Christ.

Yet another misleading attitude is that what really matters in preparing for the coming of Christ is simply that we make our best effort, give it our best shot. “You didn’t know you’d need this much oil, and you’ve run out? No big deal. You’re here, and it’s the thought that counts.” This is sometimes the advice that the church gives to people at this time of year, when the pledge cards have arrived in the mail. Strive to tithe, we say, but if you can’t, no big deal. Make your best effort; give it your best shot. This is a version of “Christian faith lite.” We may as well be praying to “Our Grandfather, who art in heaven…”. This attitude doesn’t do justice to the radical demands of the gospel. It may be more appealing in the short run, but in the long run it cheats us of experiencing the fullness of who we are called to be as children of the Most High God and disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we entertain such attitudes—that preparing for the coming of Christ is a simple one-time decision, or that it isn’t all that important, or that it’s easy—when we entertain such misleading attitudes, the result is that, when the day arrives, we will be out-of-luck bridesmaids, unprepared to meet the coming of the groom. In such a state, that day is something to be anticipated with a measure of anxiety. Listen to how the prophet Amos describes it:
Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
They don’t call it “Doomsday” for nothing, right?

But if we have prepared ourselves, if we have allowed ourselves to be shaped and formed to look like Jesus, if we have made the little decisions and formed the little habits that configure our souls to the values of the Sermon on the Mount, if we have let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, we can look forward to Doomsday—believe it or not—with some joyful anticipation. We can put ourselves in the position of the new Christians in Thessalonica, to whom St Paul wrote these words of comfort:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
St Paul then says, “Therefore comfort one another with these words.” So…let’s do it. Let us comfort one another with these words. Get ready. Check your oil supply. The Bridegroom may be just around the corner.

Amen.

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